U.S. Department of Transportation Responds to COVID-19: Rollback Safety

by Jason Levine, Executive Director at the Center for Auto Safety

With up to 300 million people being told to shelter-in-place, many Americans are trying to make the best of this unexpected time at home by cleaning out their long-neglected closets and attics. Apparently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Department of Transportation agency in charge of vehicle safety, is doing the same. However, in keeping with the best traditions of this administration, NHTSA is going through the archives making decisions on overdue items which reinforce a philosophy that government should prioritize protecting corporate bottom lines before public health and safety.

Two weeks ago, NHTSA released a proposal to rollback regulations in order to ease the ability of driverless cars to get on the road without testing or new safety standards. The next day, the agency put out their environment killing, anti-consumer rollback on fuel-economy standards. This week, they’ve doubled their work product: Tuesday, NHTSA rejected the idea that petitions for exemptions from safety standards should be “complete” before they are reviewed and made public for comment. Yesterday, NHTSA went into the way-back machine and dredged up an open petition for a defect investigation from January 23, 2013, just to deny it.

This seven-year old petition detailed the terrifying moment a consumer’s steering wheel detached while he was driving his 2005 Toyota Prius. Incredibly, it took the agency more than 2,600 days, as opposed to the required 120 days, to determine there was not enough of a trend to open a full investigation. It is hard to imagine private citizen’s keeping their job after being more than 2,400 days overdue on an assignment, and then concluding “nothing to see here.”

This led us to wonder, if NHTSA is going to work on overdue items, what if in some alternate universe they worked on some of those Congress has mandated? They could start with the immediately relevant ones, such as the requirement passed in 2015 that NHTSA tell manufacturers how to use electronic communications to inform consumers about recalls. Just about every elementary school in America has spent the last few weeks figuring out how to teach students remotely. Yet, typical of our current federal government, in five years NHTSA still hasn’t figured out how to instruct manufacturers on the use of email to tell consumers about defective brakes or cars prone to catching on fire even while parked (potentially in your garage due to COVID19 orders).

The current crisis will only increase the value of corporate whistleblowers in helping everyone know when a big company takes a government handout and then cuts corners on the road back to profitability. In 2015, Congress passed the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act, to encourage corporate whistleblowers to bring forth car safety related defects. Few industries are historically so in need of such internal oversight mechanisms. As is customary, the law left the implementing details up to the agency. As is also sadly customary, NHTSA has failed to flesh out the details of the process, thus disincentivizing good corporate citizens from coming forward to protect the public. NHTSA needs to get moving on the whistleblower rule before the assembly lines switch back from ventilators to carburetors.

Or maybe, NHTSA could focus on corporate responsibility. There are already reports the auto industry is putting its hand out for government funds because of the current economic downturn. Perhaps such a stimulus is necessary. But unquestionably it is necessary to require corporate actors to be responsible for their own defective and dangerous products. That’s why Congress enacted exactly such a requirement in 2015, requiring auto manufacturers submitting information in response to a NHTSA safety investigation have a senior official agree the information submitted to the government is accurate and true. Apparently even something ensuring the agency is not receiving inaccurate or false information is beyond NHTSA’s ability to enact.

These are just a few items that NHTSA could be working on while sheltering-in-place, ensuring that the safety of all motor vehicles operators, passengers, and pedestrians are improved and protected upon return to a relative state of normalcy. They do not include other overdue actions that might require more hands-on teamwork and testing, like writing safety performance tests for child-seats; improving the New Car Assessment Program to encourage the production of safer cars; requiring rear-seat belt reminders; updating black-box data recorders; or updating the strength of seatbacks. It’s hard to know how the world will change post-Coronavirus, but based on the last few weeks, it’s clear NHTSA has no improvement plans in place.

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